Emissaries to the Deplorables: What the Left Can Learn from Bernie Sanders and Josh Hawley
We learned this week that once again, politics makes strange bedfellows. Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO), a populist, evangelical, conservative Republican freshman from Missouri, has joined the venerable democratic socialist Bernie Sanders (D-VT) in pushing for $2,000 survival checks to the American people. They have threatened to work in tandem to shut down Senate business until the matter receives an up-or-down vote.
I am neither an expert in Senate procedure, nor qualified to speak to the ideal size and scope of these checks. I am interested in the way in which Sanders, the aging lion of the left, is not only permitted but encouraged by his supporters to strike these unlikely alliances to advance his agenda. The Vermont Senator’s long career in Washington has shown him to be adept at making friends, or at least practicing cordial cooperation, with folks from the far right. Bernie can sniff out a patch of common ground where few else can, and invite both more moderate Democrats and ultra-conservative Republicans to – on occasion, at least – join him there.
As of this morning, December 30, it seems unlikely that Bernie’s coalition will be able to force Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to permit an un-poisoned vote on $2,000 checks, but the chance remains open. More to the point, Bernie has done more than any other figure in the Senate to keep this particular cause alive – and he’s done it not by fulminating in splendid isolation, but by building an alliance of erstwhile enemies. The question for the left is simple: what can we learn from Bernie?
One of the premises of the intolerant cancel culture -- which remains ascendant for many young people and much of the American left -- is that friendship is impossible with those with whom one disagrees about fundamental issues.
A quick glance at this meme shows that it’s loaded to the gills with strawmen. No one is denying that gay people are human beings – but some folks on the right do think, for example, that bakers should be allowed to refuse to make a cake for a same-sex couple. A certain strain on the left argues that that view is not different in any discernible way from calling for gay people to be shot down in the street. The meme calls on us to place virtually every significant controversial issue into the category of That About Which Good People Cannot Disagree. Though the meme permits a discussion of a light rail line, one can easily imagine someone discovering that that light rail line would involve a city asserting eminent domain over a Black neighborhood to build the trains; quickly, to continue to support the rail line would become evidence of racism, and grounds for unfriending and ostracism.
To the truly modern mind, race and class and sex and other fundamentals are part and parcel of any discussion, even a debate between Clippers and Lakers fans. “Dealbreaker Creep” is what happens when previously innocuous issues suddenly become evidence of a stark and irreconcilable moral gulf. Sooner or later, drastic action must be taken.
To the woke mind, the capacity to sustain a relationship with someone with whom one disagrees is proof of un-renounced privilege. If you can still laugh with Uncle Cletus despite his support for Trump, it’s because you haven’t fully comprehended how loathsome Cletus’ views truly are. If you could only learn to limit your empathy to the oppressed, you’d kick your uncle out of your house, and become a more enlightened and effective ally to the marginalized and the suffering. You may not be able to stop racism yourself, but by severing ties with those whom you judge racist, you can at least stand in self-regarding solidarity with the true victims of America’s great Original Sin. Put simply, to many on the achingly enlightened left, your willingness to cut off those you once loved over their politics is the single most powerful signal you can send about the depth of your commitment to social justice.
As we all know, however, these latter-day shunnings do nothing to change hearts and minds. Cousin Billy Bob will never say, “Oh woe! Oh great shame! My niece no longer invites me over to play hearts on Boxing Day, and it is all because of my wicked politics! I see my error, and I repent of it. I will come to the light humbly, and ask forgiveness.” Rather, he will double down in bitter defiance. Cutting him off did not create any benefit to his soul, or to the common good. It just allowed the unfriender a mix of relief and moral satisfaction.
More to the point, in a closely divided nation, our refusal to engage with those whom we consider irrational and wicked makes the cause for which we fight harder, not easier, to attain. We are not headed for an India/Pakistan partition of any sort, no matter how fervently you wish for one. Instead, we are headed for a world where fewer and fewer folks are willing to risk what Senators Sanders and Hawley are willing to risk: to overlook huge and genuine ideological differences to find a sliver of common ground and work together to expand that space.
Perhaps we give Bernie a “pass” to work with the likes of Josh Hawley and Marco Rubio. He’s demonstrated his left-wing bona fides for decades. Perhaps we see him as a trusted exception to a general rule that folks on the other side should be cut out like the cancer we imagine them to be. Or perhaps we see Senators as different from you and me. Perhaps we think of them as skilled plumbers, paid well to deal with the shit most of us are too delicate to stand near for long.
Maybe only a few brave and hardy souls can be trusted to be emissaries to the “deplorables;” only those whose loyalty to justice is so unerring and so fierce that we can know with certainty that they will never waver. Few on the left think themselves as devoted and decent as Senator Sanders; it would be sheer hubris for ordinary folk to claim we could befriend right-wingers without losing our souls. Best not to try.
It may be old-fashioned to think so, but perhaps we can still find good moral examples among our elected leaders. In a time where civility to the foe has been declared complicity with injustice, Bernie and Josh offer a bold and compelling counter-narrative. They remind us that far from being the easier way, friendship and alliance with those whose worldviews are distasteful are necessary building blocks of a brighter, healthier, happier future. We cannot unfriend and ostracize our way to justice. We can negotiate and deal our way there, at least in part – but we can only negotiate with those with whom we already speak.
Imagine you’re Bernie Sanders. Who’s the Josh Hawley in your life? Will you reach out to him or her in this divisive time? What wonderful thing might happen if you do?